Iran’s revolutionary 'court' imposed harsh prison sentences last week on 18 Christian converts for charges that included 'evangelism', 'propaganda against the regime', and creating house churches to practice their faith, according to leaks from the Islamic Republic's secretive judicial system.
The sentences totaled 24 years, though the lack of transparency in Iran’s tightly censored judicial system does not provide for a breakdown of individual sentences. The defendants were additionally barred from organizing home church meetings and given a two-year ban from leaving the country.
“The cruelty of Iran's dictatorial leaders knows no limits," Saba Farzan, the German-Iranian executive director of Foreign Policy Circle, told reporters.
The Christians, most of whom have been arrested since 2013, were sentenced under with notorious Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, a vague law used as a catch-all to penalize threats to Iran’s fanatical religious rulers. The law states that “Anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations, shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”
Morad Mokhtari, Christian Iranian who fled the Islamic Republic in 2006, told Fox News on Monday that many of the charges were related to home church activities.
“Iranian religious authorities prefer that they [converts to Christianity] leave Iran because the authorities can’t control them," Mokhatari said. "Just their name is evangelism. Imagine someone says he is a Christian and has a Muslim name.”
Two reports released by the United State Commission on International Religious Freedom and by a UN study on human rights, respectively, documented extreme persecution of Muslim converts to Christianity.
“Over the past year, there were numerous incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services, threatening church members, and arresting and imprisoning worshipers and church leaders, particularly Evangelical Christian converts," read the commission report. "Since 2010, authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 500 Christians throughout the country.”
There are estimated to be between 200,000 and 500,000 Christians in the country, which has an overall population of nearly 78 million people. While Iran's constitution guarantees on paper that Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism are protected religions, the application of Sharia Law relegates members of minority religions to second class status.
“The Iranian regime’s systematic persecution of Christians, as well as Baha’is, Sunni Muslims, dissenting Shi’a Muslims, and other religious minorities, is getting worse not better," said U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) "This is a direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to de-link demands for improvements in religious freedom and human rights in Iran from the nuclear negotiations.”
Hamid Babaei, head of the press office in the Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations in New York, declined to comment.